Some filmmakers become legends in their own lifetime. A few manage to change the way films are made and viewed. Some filmmakers believe they are artists dedicated to creating high art and couldn’t care less about the audiences; some don’t care about their own art. Ram Gopal Varma is all of those rolled into one, and then some. The one-time pied pier of Hindi cinema, Varma—or RGV or Ramu, as he is fondly addressed—barely evokes the same intrigue amongst the trade and viewers as he once used to.
In the last 12 years since the first of the three Sarkar films released, RGV made over 20 films. Some might have featured known faces such as Ajay Devgn, Amitabh Bachchan, Aishwarya Rai, Vivek Oberoi, Suriya and Mohanlal, but most were films with lesser-known faces and were films that he made because he wanted to. In most of them films, he worked with anyone and everyone, tinkered around with the narrative, made them in different languages, used newer cameras or technology, treated the projects as experiments and moved on to the next one without caring a damn about the box office returns or feedback or the lack of both.
For a long time, the name ‘Ram Gopal Varma’ was enough to put together a project or sell a film, but the filmmaker was rarely perturbed when that hall-pass began to have limited appeal. For a man whose stamp can be seen on almost every cinematic development in Hindi cinema for the last 25 years, RGV is barely bothered about the past. He has been acknowledged for revolutionising filmmaking in India and nurturing talent such as Jaideep Sahni, Madhur Bhandarkar, Anurag Kashyap, Shimit Amin and Apurva Asrani, to name a few.
He was called a maverick, and when the situation changed, the filmmaker—who made Shiva (1988), Rangeela (1995), Satya (1998), Company (2002), and produced Dil Se (1998), Ek Hasina Thi (2004), Shool (1999), Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon (2003), Shabri (2011), and Ab Tak Chappan (2004)—had no qualms working like a film student with a skeletal crew and DSLR cameras.
What separates RGV from the rest is how he approaches his art. Firstly, his cinema is for himself, and he makes no qualms about it.
In many ways, he is like an Indian Orson Welles; both burst upon the scene with their first films, both were self-taught and extremely innovative with visual storytelling. Welles extensively utilised Deep Focus, and RGV practically introduced the Steadicam in Indian films with Siva/Shiva. If Welles knew what style meant (“Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn”), RGV continues to embody it.
The visuals of Sarkar 3, RGV’s latest film featuring Amitabh Bachchan and Manoj Bajpayee, would have made the audiences sit up at the promise of the filmmaker rediscovering his fabled touch, but the response to it is far from promising. Much like RGV’s recent releases, Sarkar 3 will probably be relegated to the forgotten category, and perhaps there won’t even be the perfunctory discussion about how the filmmaker has finally lost it or how he is doomed forever, but RGV will simply shrug off the whole thing and carry on as if nothing has happened.
Film historian and best-selling author